Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (SACD review)

Also, A Night on Bald Mountain, and others. Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. RCA SACD 82876-61394-2.

Many record companies continue to see something in Super Audio Compact Discs because even RCA jumped into the fray a number of years back with an SACD collection of their old “Living Stereo” recordings of the Fifties and Sixties. The idea is that some recording companies made many of these old recordings originally with microphones to the left, center, and right of the stage, the three channels subsequently mixed down into two-channel stereo. With the availability of multiple channels of sound on SACDs, the companies can now utilize the original mixes of three front channels to the fullest. And for those of us who don’t own an SACD player, most of these discs are hybrids, meaning there is also a regular two-channel layer that one can play on any regular CD machine. The theory is that companies can remaster the regular two-channel layer and make it sound even better than what they previously provided, as the folks at RCA have supposedly done in their “Living Stereo” series, the sound remastered via DSD, Direct Stream Digital.

Well, yes, in the two-channel SACD mode to which I listened, RCA did slightly improve the sound of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition with Maestro Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony. The highs no longer sound quite so bright or hard-edged. However, I also happened to have on hand the audiophile-remastered JVC disc of the same Mussorgsky recording, and I found the JVC smoother still, with a marginally greater depth of image. But that’s another story. The differences among the two-channel renderings on the three discs are really so small that I doubt most people would notice them except on direct comparison, let alone care. So I suppose the point is mostly moot unless you really, really love the performance, which I do, and then you want only the very best version of it.

The main thing about this whole affair is that Reiner’s 1957 interpretation of the Mussorgsky work is still the best one available, each “picture” an elegant little masterpiece, and RCA’s SACD edition has certain advantages over its regular competition. The SACD sounds good in two-channel stereo, with wonderful detailing and range, if not quite so good as the higher-priced JVC. It offers three-channel performance for those able to play it back that way. And coupled with it you’ll find the additional goodies that also come on the regular RCA release: Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, Tchaikovsky’s Marche miniature, Borodin’s Polovtsian March, Tchaikovsky’s March slave, Kabalevsky’s Colas Breugnon, and Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla Overture, all of them filled with the color and excitement you’d expect from Reiner performances.

Don’t you hate decisions? I’m glad it’s not my job to make them for you. But for myself alone, I can’t think of a better Mussorgsky Pictures than Reiner’s.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:



  1. What would you say about Ansermet's versions?

  2. I don't know how many times Ansermet recorded it, but the only one I remember hearing, many years ago, was his Decca recording with the Suisse Romande from around 1960. I recall it having excellent sound (although a touch edgy for my taste) and fairly good characterization and atmosphere. It must not have impressed me enough to buy it or keep it, though, as I haven't thought about it for years.

  3. Oki, thanks for the reply.
    I just heard the reviewed SACD so my times that I found Ansermet's interpretation quite refreshing.

  4. John, I really enjoy the blog as it's aptly named...lots of knowledge presented straight with no BS. The Ansermet/ Suisse Romande of 1960 is my own favorite version of Pictures with a uniquely superb sense of characterization for the movements helped by the French sound in the winds and brass that was part and parcel of the SRO in those days. It also meant that intonation could be approximate at times...Chicago was technically light years ahead of them in the playing and ensemble department. Still, it adds a rustic character that is unique to this version. Add to that the classic Decca Tree based sound that engineer Roy Wallace was doing with them in Victoria Hall Geneva at the time and you have a refreshing winner in the Pictures sweepstakes. It has been reissued by Decca Eloquence Australia and the bright top end has been tamed a bit.

  5. Thanks, Tom, for helping me remember the recording. Yes, I've always liked the early Decca sound, except when it could be a little bright, glassy, or edgy. I'll have to look into getting the Australian Eloquence.


John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa